Marion C. Barry leans back in his chair at a candidate forum during the straw poll April 1 for Ward 8's open city council seat. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Twenty years ago, when Marion S. Barry Jr. ascended to the mayor’s office and left his D.C. Council seat vacant, the free-for-all to replace him was far from settled the night of the election. After the ballots were counted, Barry’s chosen successor led by a single vote.

Barry’s death last fall left his council seat vacant yet again. And with a dozen candidates and an even more chaotic race unfolding since, the question looming over Tuesday’s special election is whether the city is in for another long night.

“Everyone is just waiting to see if Marion, the father, can from the grave, help the son,” said longtime Ward 8 political activist Philip Pannell. “And, oh God, yes. There’s a good chance we have no idea on election night.”

Support for Marion Christopher Barry, the political neophyte but namesake of the legendary four-term D.C. mayor, remains one of the greatest unknowns in the contest’s final days. He — along with Barry protege Trayon White; a Barry spokeswoman, Natalie Williams; and nine other candidates in Ward 8 — has promised to carry on Barry’s populist legacy in the city’s economically depressed neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

But as in Ward 4, where another special election will be held on Tuesday, every candidate on the ballot will also be running in the shadow of another mayor — the District’s current one, Muriel E. Bowser.

Ward 8 council candidates Dr. Keita Vanterpool, Sandra Seegars, and LaRuby May take part at a candidate forum on Feb. 9. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Two of Bowser’s closest political confidants — Brandon Todd, her former campaign finance chief, running in Ward 4, and LaRuby May, her Ward 8 political director last fall — have amassed record fundraising totals and laundry lists of endorsements.

Both have emerged as the candidates to beat. And concerns that Bowser could have two ultra-close allies on the council — and enough sway to seal close votes — have emerged as the central tension in both ward elections.

“It’s the concern you hear over and over from voters,” said Drew Schneider, a blogger in Petworth who has maintained the most comprehensive Web site tracking the Ward 4 race. “Everyone has sent me all of the questions submitted by residents at the various forums. I have stacks and stacks of notecards, and a third to a half are all about the . . . relationship with the mayor.”

In Ward 4, Todd has embraced his close ties with Bowser, saying he is the only one who can pick up the phone and call the mayor to get things done. Competitors Leon T. Andrews Jr., Dwayne Toliver and Renee L. Bowser (no relation to the mayor) have emerged as a top tier of anti-Bowser alternatives, but they could be in danger of splitting the vote.

In Ward 8, May has more cautiously addressed her relationship with Bowser, but she has drawn increasingly fierce attacks for that connection from voting rights activist Eugene D. Kinlow and Sheila Bunn, who was former mayor Vincent C. Gray’s deputy chief of staff.

Because it is an off-election year, political strategists say they will be surprised if more than 15 percent of voters turn out in Ward 8 and a quarter of voters in Ward 4.

That means the winning candidate, especially in Ward 8, could easily win with a small fraction of the ward’s registered voters.

Pannell said that no matter the outcome, the election is likely to reinvigorate interest in a bill now pending in the D.C. Council to hold instant runoff elections between top vote-getters.